Red River Valley Water Supply Project

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The 2021 Garrison Diversion Water Conference focused on the Red River Valley Water Supply Project (RRVWSP) drew about 100 attendees to the Fargo Holiday Inn on October 21. The biannual conference aims to educate the public, legislators, and RRVWSP stakeholders on the drought mitigation project. A wide variety of speakers provided updates on drought conditions, construction status, funding, and economic development benefits, as well as the State’s economic outlook with and without the Project.

LAWA Chairman and Fargo Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney started off the day by welcoming the crowd to Fargo. He also discussed the need for the RRVWSP. “Severe drought conditions that we experienced this summer were a wakeup call for all of us. In Fargo, we went to drought level three precautions because we had little water running through the Red River.  When we looked at the river, it was less than 10% flow,” said Mahoney, underlying the immediate need for the water supply that will be delivered by the RRVWSP.

Duane DeKrey, Garrison Diversion General Manager, shared the history of the federal Garrison Diversion project beginning in 1944. He continued through the decades to the state RRVWSP, which is currently under construction. “The state project is a better project than the federal project because the federal project was limited to the 13 most eastern counties in the state of North Dakota. Under the state project, we can go from the Missouri River to the eastern border of North Dakota. It covers a lot more territory and a lot more people,” he explained.

Kip Kovar, Deputy Program Manager for RRVWSP Engineering, illustrated how the RRVWSP system will convey water from the Missouri River in central North Dakota to the Red River Valley. Kurt Ronnekamp, Black and Veatch Senior Project Manager, provided an update on the RRVWSP’s construction progress.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Daryl Ritchison, is the Director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network Director (NDAWN). “We now have almost 70 weather stations in North Dakota and western Minnesota,” said Ritchison. He told attendees how NDAWN uses soil water probes information across the state to provide an accurate reading of soil moisture across North Dakota. The soil water probes measure volumetric water content. He encouraged attendees to visit the NDAWN website to view the agency’s soil water data. NDAWN also calculates soil saturation percentage, which considers the various types of soil including clay and sandy varieties.

John Wheeler, WDAY TV Chief Meteorologist, returned this year to emcee the one-day conference. He provided commentary throughout the day on drought and joined Ritchison after his presentation to answer weather questions from the audience.  “It didn’t rain today. Is this the start of a drought? You never know the first day of a drought until you can look back,” Wheeler said. “Likewise, you cannot tell that a drought has ended just because it rained. Like what happened in 2021, when the moisture deficits grow large, one rainfall – unless it’s a remarkable rainfall – is not enough to make up the moisture deficit.”

Steve Burian, Burian & Associates President/CEO, compared the impacts of the 2021 drought to those that occurred in the 1930s and 1980s, from the perspective of a water utility. Utilizing the City of Fargo as an example, Burian explained that Fargo gets its water supply first from the Red River, then the Sheyenne River, and in extreme situations, natural flows stored in Lake Ashtabula at Valley City are utilized. Given the travel time between Valley City and Fargo, the City of Fargo was just one or two weeks away from calling the Department of Water Resources to request water be released from the dam at Lake Ashtabula this year. “From a water supply perspective, it was very dire,” Burian said. He added, “From a water supplier perspective, we are certainly still in the midst of a severe drought.    

The RRVWSP’s funding, financing, and economic development benefits were outlined by Merri Mooridian, Deputy Program Manager of RRVWSP Administration, and Shawn Gaddie, AE2S Infrastructure Management Services Director. “We have made significant progress on construction. We were able to make that progress thanks to the funding from the legislature, the State Water Commission, and the Department of Water Resources have provided to move this project forward. We want to keep the momentum going so we can build this project within a reasonable amount of time. We have many tools and options to achieve project affordability,” said Mooridian.

Bank of North Dakota (BND) SVP of Business Development, Kelvin Hullet, shared an inside look at the bank’s utilization of Regional Economic Modeling Incorporated (REMI) software. BND utilized the REMI software to predict the impact on North Dakota’s economy with the RRVWSP and without the project. “The REMI model is very unique in that it builds the State’s GDP (gross domestic product), population, and economy inside the model. We can put can things into that model and it will give us a really good indication of what the impact is going forward of a policy decision, or project, program,” explained Hullet.
BND’s REMI model indicates the RRVWSP will protect $22.2 billion of the State’s GDP between 2033 and 2050 during a severe drought. Furthermore, with the RRVWSP in place North Dakota would retain 23,800 residents and 15,600 jobs annually during a severe drought. The REMI model also looked at projected industrial benefits from 2033 to 2050. With the supplemental water supply available from the RRVWSP, North Dakota’s average annual economic impact from the full utilization of the Project’s industrial capacity is projected to be $1.7 billion.

After the REMI discussion, Brent Bogar, AE2S Communications Practice Leader, moderated a panel discussion focused on economic development issues in North Dakota. The panel featured Hulett; Richard Garman, North Dakota Commerce Department Deputy Director of Economic Development; Terry Sando, Hillsboro City Commission President; and Brandon Baumbach, Grand Forks Region EDC Director of Business Development.

One of the highlights of the day was when the Director of the State’s new Department of Water Resources, Andrea Travnicek, discussed the State of Water in North Dakota. Her resume includes Natural Resource Senior Policy Advisor to Governors Dalrymple and Hoeven, as well as serving the Trump Administration as the Acting Assistant Secretary of Water and Science at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey. She also served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Parks Services. Travnicek says her previous roles allowed her to become knowledgeable about the RRVWSP prior to accepting the top job at the Department of Water Resources. “I know there are a lot of pressures coming in from other states and Canada as we all try to manage this limited resource. I’ve had the opportunity to negotiate on the Red River Valley Water Supply, not only in Congress but with Canada,” said Travnicek, who was recently named to the International Red River Watershed Board.

The conference wrapped up with a panel discussion about the State of Water in North Dakota moderated by Joel Heitkamp, KFGO radio host. “I think everybody is starting to understand the importance of managing water in the State of North Dakota. I think the legislature as a whole understands that. We need to have quality water. If this state is going to grow, one of the things we need is good quality water,” said Sen. Rich Wardner.

“One of the things that has come out of the drought, at least with my colleagues, is the value of the Missouri River – we need to utilize every drop of that water that we can,” said Rep. Jim Schmidt.

The other panelists included Travnicek; Eric Volk, ND Rural Water Association Executive Director; and Alan Walter, Garrison Diversion Board of Directors Chairman.

Chairman Walter also educated conference guests about the many initiatives Garrison Diversion manages in addition to the RRVWSP. He touched on the Municipal, Rural and Industrial (MR&I) Water Supply Program, operations and maintenance of the Garrison Diversion Unit existing facilities, matching recreation and water supply assistance grant programs, protection of natural resources, and agriculture irrigation.